Fact check: Nashville mayor did not hide COVID-19 stats, emails taken out-of-context

The claim: Nashville mayor hid low COVID-19 stats associated with bars and restaurants. 

When a local news station accused Nashville's city government of a COVID-19 cover-up, the news quickly went national. And it was widely shared on social media, even after the TV station retracted its story and accusations, saying it didn't have any evidence of such deception. 

In its Sept. 16 report, Fox17 Nashville released details of what it called a lack of transparency related to COVID-19 data on the part of Mayor John Cooper's administration. The bulk of the video is a jumble of emails — the relevant text magnified — among a reporter, public health and government officials. A damning sound bite from Metro Councilman Steve Glover punctuates the story's allusion to a government cover-up. 

In a viral video viewed by over 51,000 Facebook users before it was removed, Fox Nation's Tomi Lahren recapped the Fox17 report and lodged a serious charge against Cooper.

"The Nashville mayor’s office has been hiding the low COVID cases traced from bars while still keeping them under his tyrannical curfew and capacity stranglehold in the name of public health and safety," said the political commentator in a Sept. 18 clip of her show "Final Thoughts." The clip was posted on Lahren's public Facebook page. 

CNSNews.com also posted the Fox17 report on Sept. 20 to its Facebook page, where it has since been viewed more than 248,000 times. USA TODAY has reached out to CNSNews.com for further comment. 

The story was republished by Newsweek, the New York Post and the Daily Mail. The New York Post version was tweeted by Donald Trump Jr., the son of the president. The Fox17 story was also the subject of a segment on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News, then subsequently shared by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who represents Tennessee.

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Stats in plain sight

If this local government cover-up sounds like the stuff of political fiction, it is. 

Two emails, obtained by Fox17 from the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed against the mayor by bar owners, serve as the basis for the station's story. 

The first exchange, dated June 30, is between an epidemiologist and a member of the mayor’s staff. The staffer asked for information on the number of infections linked to bars, then the epidemiologist asks if the information was going to be released publicly. The mayor’s staffer says no. 

While that particular conversation may not have been public, city officials disclosed the low number of infections tied to bars – 30 infections at 10 locations at the time – two days later. The statistic was announced at a July 2 press conference with Fox17 in attendance. The press conference was made available online and details published in The Tennessean in a front-page article. 

Fox17's "cover-up" theory originates from a July 30 email exchange between Nate Rau of Tennessee Lookout (who is misattributed as a reporter for The Tennessean, his former employer, in the video). Benjamin Eagles, a senior adviser for the mayor, emailed the local health department to fulfill Rau's request. In that exchange, one unidentified official, quoted by Fox17, wrote, “We have certainly refused to give counts per bar.”  

FOX17 Nashville leveled allegations of a government cover-up by Nashville mayor John Cooper. The Fox affiliate claimed the mayor withheld data on the low COVID-19 cases associated with bars and restaurants.

That alone may sound sinister but what Fox17 failed to include was the full context. The actual quote from the July 30 email, which can been seen in Fox17's report, states, "We have certainly refused to give counts per bar (i.e. # cases per bar cluster) because those numbers are low per site, and there are data standards prohibiting the release of a total count that is less than 10 per small geographic area. We do have 2 bars now where the counts are over 10, but then that would single out those two and not the others. We could still release the total though."

Additional emails released Sept. 17 on Eagles' official Twitter, show public health officials were concerned with the appropriate means of releasing the information without violating patient privacy.

"I do not see a problem with releasing the number of cases that are due to clusters at bars (currently >80)," one email reads, "it is just the issue whether we can or should release the names of the bars... Releasing the names of bars or schools especially when there haven't been many cases makes it possible to identify the individual(s) that were positive and HIPPA says you can't provide any information that may help identify an individual."  

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Rau reported the news of low COVID-19 cases associated with Nashville bars and restaurants on Aug. 4, a full six weeks before FOX17 Nashville aired its report. He took to Twitter to decry Fox17 Nashville's misinformation.

"This headline is completely inaccurate. They literally turned over the numbers. A story was published," Rau tweeted on Sept. 17.

In a statement to Oliver Darcy of CNN, Fox17 retracted its story and offered apologies.

"In a segment that aired earlier this week, we incorrectly asserted that Mayor Cooper's office withheld COVID-19 data from the public, which implied that there had been a cover up. We want to clarify that we do not believe there was any cover-up, and we apologize for the error and oversight in our reporting," the station said.  

Similarly, in a emailed statement to USA TODAY, a Fox News spokesperson confirmed Lahren's "Final Thoughts" episode had been removed from the streaming platform and the Facebook video removed from her page. Lahren is set to address her comments on the FOX17 Nashville story in an upcoming episode. The story's retraction has also been addressed on other Fox News shows where it was reported, the spokesperson said.

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Our ruling: False

The allegation Nashville Mayor John Cooper withheld information on low COVID-19 cases related to bars and restaurants is based on emails taken out-of-context by Fox17 Nashville. Relevant COVID-19 data has been available since July and was reported on in August. The Fox affiliate itself retracted the story and issued an apology. Social posts still making the claim are FALSE, based on our research.

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